Like many people I know, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to navigate the Canada150 anniversary, while paying attention to its stark reminders that Canada has never stopped destroying the Indigenous people whose land Canada inhabits.
I was talking about this with my friend L in California last week, and telling her about residential schools. “The 1960s!??” she kept saying. Yup, I said. Our lifetime. We talked about the ensuing intergenerational trauma, destroyed communities, and continued unbelievable stealing of Treaty land by provincial governments for energy projects.
There is a lot to be grateful for about being Canadian, but this sure as heck is not one. But what I am grateful for is the way the narrative of Canada150 has been disrupted by so many voices asking Canadians to think hard about what they are celebrating, and to really grapple with truth. (Let’s just stay with truth for a moment — maybe reconciliation can follow).
I think it’s hard for Canadians to confront the hard stuff. I have a pet theory that one of the things that distinguishes us as Canadians is that we get along, more or less, as much as we do, because we tend, as a whole, not to go head on at the things that polarize us. When I did my PhD in the US, I realized that I had a habit of circumventing the parts of the institution that didn’t suit me much, while my American student-colleagues went head on at trying to change the institution.
I started to notice places where Canadians have created grey areas, where lived experience differs the actual law or institution. We have been okay without a federal abortion law for more than 25 years, the speed limits are posted at 100km on the highway but we all “know” that 120 is the “normal” speed, marijuana hasn’t yet been decriminalized but it permeates my daily commute, almost no-one is a British monarchist but we don’t get all het up about the Queen being on our money, Quebec is de facto a separate nation and we all seem to be more or less okay with that.
I could go on, but I think we are really terrible as a country about making active decisions to change things. Our referendum and plebescite history always lands in the status quo — I really don’t think we’d vote for a Brexit-style change. We have a lot of differing opinions — quite passionate ones — but we don’t go head on at the things that could change. I could argue that the biggest intentional change we’ve had in the past 50 years is the Charter, and we are now, more or less, content to let the courts and the Charter do much of the work of shoving us into more progressive law-making (viz, same sex marriage, medical assistance in dying).
In that same conversation I referenced above, I tried to explain this to L, with “most of us don’t really think it makes sense that the Queen is our head of state, but we feel affection for the Queen, and the woman is in her 90s — we wouldn’t try to dethrone her at this stage — it would be like coming out to your grandmother AND telling her you had an abortion at Thanksgiving dinner!” I was being ridiculous, but I also think we tend not to go straight at the things that create a lot of discomfort. It’s not bad or good, it’s what we are. But. This means that we have no skill or comfort at having the big, hard conversations.
I’m grateful to be Canadian. And I’m also grateful for the disruptive conversation around Canada 150. I think we need to learn how to have the complex conversations that up-end our assumptions. I’m grateful for the many, many voices that have blanketed the country encouraging a different narrative — from Jesse Wente to the indigenous women who came to my client at CAMH over lunch last week to share some of their own cultural practices and talk about trauma.
One of the teams I’m coaching in my work is focused on responding to Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations in one of the major healthcare systems in Toronto, and I’m grateful for the Indigenous voices that are teaching me as part of that work. Learning to think hard about what it really means for an Aboriginal woman to say “we are are not part of the cultural mosaic,” and to truly try to grapple with what it means for a big institution to genuinely partner with an Indigenous group.
This is an inflection point for us, and a rare chance to shift. I’m trying to listen and read and pay attention, and I’m doing one tiny gesture that feels meaningful. I’ve been asking for recommendations about small Indigenous organizations that are doing work with little resources. I am picking 10 and sending each of them $150 leading up to July 1. And then I’m going to try to learn more about the work that each of them is doing, and how I can be a true ally. And then on Canada Day, I’m going to ride my bike 150 km and think about what I am grateful for.
(A few suggested organizations:
Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), which was a critical force in insisting that missing and murdered women receive full judicial and police attention: https://www.nwac.ca/
Anduhyaun, an agency that’s been working with Toronto’s Indigenous women since the 1970s. http://anduhyaun.org/
Miziwebiik: an Aboriginal housing and employment agency in Toronto. https://www.miziwebiik.com/
Indspire: a national organization for indigenous education. http://indspire.ca/
(there are many many many more).